Books, Miscellaneous

The point of no return

It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned we live in a city without walls
Epicurus.

Death happens to everybody.
We are all equal before death.
Death is natural.
After the body dies, it rots.
We are all mortal.
There is no life after death.
Extinction of the self is inevitable.
Nothing of the ego survives death.
After death there is nothing.
Death cannot be defeated.

These are comforting words to me.

Death is inevitable and unknowable. Inevitable because it cannot be escaped; unknowable because it is not an event in life (no one lives to experience it). In our secular age it is increasingly difficult to talk about death and those who do speak plainly about it are accused of morbidity. Where do we find the courage to overcome the fear of our own annihilation? Death has become the last great taboo. What is the point of pondering a question that is insoluble? Those who do speak of it are generally confounded by superstition and evasion: ouija boards, mediums, heaven, limbo, apparitions, fate, hell, RIP, nirvana, purgatory, Karma, exorcism and all the rest of the hokum. How strange it is that people believe when you die eternity starts.

One definition of a philosopher is a person who confronts the fact of death. To be a philosopher is to learn how to die wrote Montaigne in his Essays in the 1570s. What did he mean? He borrowed the expression from Cicero, who attributes it to Plato (Phaedo) and Zeno of Citium the founder of Stoicism was much taken with it. There is a Platonic interpretation of the idea, but Montaigne’s understanding is to me the more interesting one.

Montaigne says that we must accept death (since we cannot escape it) without allowing it to blot our lives or disrupt our happiness. By pondering the fact of our death we become accustomed to the thought of it, steel ourselves against it making it less insistent, less ingrained. Through contemplation, he insisted, we pass from anxiety about death to nonchalance and endurance and serene acceptance. The cultivation of indifference to our own death is also known as having a philosophical attitude. The fear of death enslaves us as it leads to the longing for immortality and the desire to flee from ourselves. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave he wrote. The true philosopher can stare death in the face and have the strength to say it is nothing. In this way atheists can go to their graves with more composure and contentment than theists.

The idea goes further though. Because we and our loved ones are mortal we understand that life is precarious, as it must come to an end. Our human suffering, which makes us who we are, is also what makes life so precious. If we did not die life would not be as moving, as extraordinary and so we should embrace life’s fragility, brevity and precariousness. The philosopher enjoys a long life because he doesn’t worry about its shortness. Life is what is precious and true philosophers have learned to love it by rejoicing in the fact of mortality, that is they love death the better to love life. Seneca the Stoic said He will live badly who does not know how to die well.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. (Tractatus, Wittgenstein)

Wittgenstein was given a present on his birthday by his landlady, the day before he died. “Many happy returns” she said. Wittgenstein replied, staring hard at her, “There will be no returns”.

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One thought on “The point of no return

  1. John Hayes says:

    Excellent. I thought this was going to be a morbid blog. But it is very thought-provoking and uplifting. I shall try and enjoy life to the full now I’ve read it….

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